Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4070
The most distinctive characteristic of Robert Frost’s work is elusiveness. Frost operates on so many levels that to interpret his poems confidently on a single level frequently causes the reader to misunderstand them completely. This elusiveness makes Frost one of the most interesting and continually intriguing American poets. He teaches the joys of discovering what lies beneath the veil, and readers grow to appreciate how he has cleverly masked what seems so intuitively obvious.
The veils themselves are constructed of technical devices such as symbol, rhyme, stanzation, imagery, and dramatic situation, and they are rooted in language play, which Frost uses to effect sleight-of-hand tricks. He is a magician whose devices are so artful that readers usually cannot see how he transforms one theme into another; they may be delighted with the effect, yet they cannot help wondering how they have been tricked so completely.
Because Frost’s poems operate on so many levels, it is possible for almost everyone to find his or her own beliefs about life reflected in Frost’s poetry. Optimists can argue that Frost understands the complexities of life while still affirming humanity’s ability to make creative choices that determine its future. Realists can argue that Frost is not an optimist, although, having acknowledged that doubt is more prevalent than faith, he still derives pleasure from the process of living life in the present. Skeptics can point out Frost’s irony, noting that he affirms nothing but the dualities and contradictions of life and human nature. Each type of reader has interpreted Frost correctly; one must consider all levels of Frost’s poems before being certain of any particular meaning. Because Frost writes about familiar experiences in what appears to be conversational language, the overwhelming impulse is to accept what he says at face value.
The fact that most readers seem to see their own beliefs reflected in Frost’s poetry certainly accounts for his popular success, but this point also raises some serious questions about his poetic achievement. If his poems advance no universal truths, Frost may well be accused of having no philosophy—of being too vague and complex for any clear interpretation to be derived from his works. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is only one of many examples of a poem that has been read with many contradictory interpretations. Readers have variously explained its meaning, ranging from the serenity of a snowy night to the virtues of duty to the lure of death to self-mockery. A critic who reads Frost moralistically, believing that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a lesson about keeping promises, has fallen into Frost’s trap. Readers must be exceedingly careful not to impose their own ideas on the poems or to blindly accept any interpretations.
The place to begin an explication of Frost’s poetry is with the narrative persona and dramatic situation, for it is here that Frost draws the reader into the poems and begins his illusions. Only a few of his poems have no dramatic context—most of his celebrated ones do, such as “Mending Wall,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “Death of the Hired Man,” “West-Running Brook,” “Tree at My Window,” and “Two Look at Two”—and except for such very short lyrical poems as “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” the dramatic context offers the surest chance of discovering Frost’s themes.
In “After Apple-Picking,” for example, a great deal can be established about the dramatic situation, the dramatic moment, and the narrative persona. The reader knows that the narrator has been harvesting apples, perhaps in great numbers, and that he is now “done” with apple-picking. He has collected his apples in barrels, one of which remains unfilled, and the narrator speculates that there may be a few applies left unpicked, although he does not know for certain. His ladder, long and two-pointed, is in the tree where he has left it, and it points “toward heaven still.”
In the first six lines, Frost has already begun his sleight of hand by introducing some facts within the dramatic situation that seem extraneous to the poem’s development. For example, why does he describe a “two-pointed” ladder when it does not make any difference what kind of ladder it is as long as the narrator can reach the apples with it? Why does he say that it is “sticking” toward heaven? These details of course help to bring the poem alive, but as part of the dramatic situation they add implications far beyond their descriptive use. Heaven is not simply a direction; if it were, Frost could have said “skyward,” or not said anything at all since it is obvious that a ladder that sticks through a tree must be pointing up. The empty barrel is similarly suggestive: Readers want to know whether it is empty because somebody miscalculated the number of barrels needed, whether the narrator simply quit before the job was “done,” or whether there is a more sinister suggestion that something that should have been filled is empty. Both the ladder and the barrel are facts within the dramatic situation, but they are more than simple details because they raise questions that fall outside the realm of the poem. Readers should be careful to recognize that these questions arise only if they wish to read the ladder and barrel as suggestive. Clearly, however, Frost did not place them in the poem by accident, and therefore they are important. The same kind of suggestiveness can be found in phrases throughout the poem: “winter sleep,” “pane of glass,” “my dreaming,” “cellar bin,” “rumbling sound,” “cider-apple heap,” “woodchuck,” and “human sleep.”
Complicating the dramatic moment, the narrator tells some things about himself that help to explain why he has left the barrel empty. Readers know that the time is late fall because it is the end of apple-picking season and the beginning of winter sleep. Readers also know that the narrator is tired as he remembers visions that he saw “this morning through a pane of glass” and as he recognizes what form his dreaming is about to take. The morning world of “hoary grass” was strange to him, and as the ice pane melted, the narrator intentionally let it fall and break. Now, at the end of the day, he is embarking on a nightmare of apples; his ladder sways precariously as the boughs bend. He is no longer safe in the apple tree where he had once been certain of his purpose; now, it is the source of his fears. Too many apples “rumble” into the cellar, a place beneath the earth, in the opposite to that direction in which the ladder is pointing. What worries the narrator most is that some of the good apples “not bruised or spiked” will end up in the “cider-apple heap,” a place that offends the narrator’s sense of justice. Just as readers want to know why the barrel was left unfilled, the narrator asks why good apples that he let fall by accident are sent to the heap. If readers can understand why he is so troubled by this, they will know a great deal more about the poem’s meaning.
With his typical magic, however, Frost sets the reader up to accept the easy explanation as he tempts him to explain the narrator’s anxieties merely as a fear of failure to do his job properly. Frost has planted a host of potentially misleading elements that encourage conventional interpretations. The ladder, with its image of outstretched arms, implores heaven, perhaps even suggesting Jacob’s ladder. Because apples have such a strong traditional association with the story of the Garden of Eden, one might also conclude that apples represent the narrator’s fall into mortal existence—his banishment from the grace of God. He has not, himself, sinned but carries the burden of Original Sin, and even though he has done the best he can with his life—he has dutifully picked apples until the very end—he is still plagued by nightmares. He knows that he has let slip from his grasp some apples that went undeservedly to the cider-apple heap; it is he who has condemned them to unworthy destruction by the apple grinder, and it occurs to him that his destiny might be similar to one of the good apples that is banished to destruction by chance. The narrator, then, is plagued by two doubts: The first is his own failure to fulfill all his earthly obligations, knowing that time is running out for him (“essence of winter sleep is on the air”); the second is a fear that there is no ultimate mercy—that fallen humans like fallen apples are disposed of indiscriminately. The hoary world he saw through the pane of glass (with its biblical allusion: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face”) was the image of life and death, and of his own mortality.
Frost has gone to a great deal of trouble to establish this as the proper reading: The narrator is frightened by the thought of death because he is uncertain whether he has satisfied his earthly duties. A simple moralistic conclusion might be that people should work harder before finding themselves, like the narrator, on the verge of death without salvation. Frost first offered the reader those suggestive objects; then presented a narrator filled with visions, dreams, and sleep; and finally produced a dozen highly recognizable and traditional biblical symbols. Why should not “After Apple-Picking” (and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for that matter) be interpreted as a poem about the virtues of steadfastness and singleness of purpose? Yet, one cannot read the poem only at that level; Frost has effected a sleight of hand. Any good magician must continually remind the audience that this is not reality; it is, indeed, a magic show where they have come to be fooled. If Frost wants readers to catch on, he has to provide some means for them to spot the trickery. With Frost’s poetry, the price of admission to the magic show is high, and there are no easy explanations as to how the trick is performed, but Frost usually plays fair and gives the reader important clues.
One of the clues in “After Apple-Picking” is the use of personal pronouns. In line 16, and throughout the poem, the narrator continually refers to himself as “I,” but in line 37 he shifts to say “one” (“one can see what will trouble this sleep of mine”). He could have said “I can see,” but there is that deliberate shift to “one,” who can be no one else but the reader, and Frost might as well have said “you” can see. All along, the reader has been thinking that the narrator is troubled about his sleep because he is unprepared for death, but now he begins to suspect that this interpretation is incorrect. “This sleep of mine” is not the sleep the reader originally understood, and the narrator corrects the misconception by adding, “whatever sleep it is.” The reader believed it was death, and for good reason: Again tricked into it, the reader has fallen into the poem’s message.
The “one” who can see the narrator’s sleep is not the reader but the woodchuck who could “say” whether “it’s like his long sleep or just some human sleep.” In reality, the woodchuck could not say anything, nor could the woodchuck fear death because of any failure to fulfill religious obligations. The narrator can speak of and fear death, unsure of salvation, but not the woodchuck. Even more trickily, the narrator projects or imagines what the woodchuck’s long sleep is (“as I describe its coming on”); so readers have the woodchuck, who cannot possess human vision, telling the narrator only what the narrator imagines and ascribes to the animal. It is through imagination that humans conceive death, just as readers have used their imagination to create the symbols in the poem. So moments of life may be misinterpreted to create concepts of death. For Frost, human imagination is the trickster, not death, and humans often use it to torment themselves about a mortality that they have fabricated.
Theme of earthly existence
This theme of “After Apple-Picking” reflects Frost’s larger worldview and helps to account for the frequent misreading of his poems. Even though “After Apple-Picking” seems to be concerned with death, Christian fate, redemption, and the virtuous life—abstract ideas about the afterlife—Frost is much more concerned with earthly existence. He seldom speaks of anywhere else, and when he does, it is always in terms of how one is on Earth. Frost neither believes nor disbelieves in religious or philosophical abstractions; yet, time and again, readers insist that he is promoting one view or the other. Frost’s code, both in his art and in his public life, is an appreciation of wit and irony; Frost the magician is also the most appreciative audience of life’s magic show, and it is important to remember that when there is a strong presence of a narrative persona, the poem is most likely to turn ironic. Frost is most ironic toward himself, and he becomes most poignant when he sees that he has become his own victim in the magic show. In “Birches,” for example, the narrator is searching for connections that he does not fully understand, while in “At Woodward’s Gardens,” a remarkably similar poem, the narrator is more amused by a much too clever comparison between people and monkeys. By comparing these two poems, readers have an illustration of how, when the narrator is aloof and haughty, and when he is able to be more of an observer than a participant, the irony is weakened. When the narrator is as much the audience as the magician, however, the poems reverse themselves as the narrator, himself, comes to appreciate life’s sleight of hand.
Dramatic situation and narrative persona
Many of Frost’s most popular and critically acclaimed poems employ what might be called “sleight of tongue.” Notice how, when the narrator in “After Apple-Picking” says “this sleep of mine,” he is also saying “this sleep of mind”; in “Tree at My Window,” when the narrator says “not all their light tongues could be profound,” he is referring not only to an image of leaves blowing on the tree but also to the process of photosynthesis that nourishes the plant. In his celebrated sonnet “Design,” Frost mixes a set of provocative objects (spider web, delicate white flower, moth) within a dramatic situation, and for twelve lines asks a traditional poetic question that in traditional sonnet fashion will be answered in the couplet. Instead of giving an answer, however, Frost proffers another question that is keyed to the various uses of the parts of speech and the equivocal meanings of the words “design” and “appall.” Similarly, in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Frost establishes a dramatic situation with an involved narrator, offers a solution to the dramatic question in line 15 (“And miles to go before I sleep”), then reverses the entire tone of the poem by repeating the line to give it a different meaning.
In the longer poems, dramatic situation and narrative persona are the important elements of irony, while in the shorter poems rhyme and stanzation provide the clues. The poems written in couplets are more playful and bemused than they are ironic because, in the cynical twentieth century, it was difficult for poets to sustain through couplets the solemnity that irony demands. A single couplet or triplet judiciously placed can create exactly the right ironic effect, but an entire poem in couplets tends toward ridicule rather than the reverse. Knowing this, Frost works to overcome the effect, but his couplet poems tend to reflect longing or sadness and are, in fact, more sincere than ironic. Curiously, some of the most ironic poems are those that use triple and quadruple rhyme schemes, such as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “After Apple-Picking.” The least ironic are those with an abcb structure; these poems present such personal and impossible questions that no answer is acceptable, and thus there is no irony. The impossibility of his question allows the narrator to be distanced from the dramatic tension, and the absence of personal involvement reduces the narrator’s commitment to discovery. Comparing “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to “Come In,” two very similar poems, the reader can see that the rhyme scheme of “Come In” does not permit as strong a potential for a shift in tone as does the aaba of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The locked third line in the aaba form allows the narrator much less chance of escaping, and because the fourth line returns the poem to the first two, the narrator must turn internally to the poem for a resolution.
More adaptable to irony than the abcb stanzation are the alternating quatrains, octaves, and sonnets, but these are more openly philosophical and convey a sense of pleasant discovery rather than deep involvement. The narrator feels good about his discovery, as in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” and “Design,” and these poems tend to contain elements of irony without making any final ironic statement. The forms in which Frost is most consistently ironic are stanzas with framed segments (such as abba, abca, abbba, aaba). In the longer, rhymed poems, such as “The Grindstone” and “After Apple-Picking,” and in the four-line strophic poems, such as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Choose Something Like a Star,” the ironic tone is strong, especially when Frost begins shortening lines, as in “Fire and Ice,” and altering the number of syllables per line. Without ever reading the poem, one could speculate that “After Apple-Picking” is ironic because of the framed segments (such as the opening six lines), enjambment, shortened lines (line 2 following the long first line, and lines 14 and 16), and the double and triple rhymes (lines 5-6 and lines 14-16, for example). With this combination of techniques, there is little doubt that one cannot accept the poem at face value.
More important than the technical devices for discovering Frost’s irony and major themes is the presence of “opposites,” which set up patterns of reversal. Frost frequently presents “pairs” of contrasting personas, ideas, images, or symbols, such as in “Tree at My Window,” where man faces nature with only a curtain between; in “Two Look at Two,” where identical pairs confront each other; in “West-Running Brook,” “Home Burial,” and “Death of the Hired Man,” where husband and wife take opposite views; in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” where the narrator faces the lumberjacks in a confrontation of vocation and avocation; and perhaps most famously in “Mending Wall,” where narrator and neighbor, pine and apple trees, civilized man and savage, father and son, light and dark, ego and alter ego square off against each other with yet another barrier—the wall—between them.
Most of the “opposite” poems use some kind of physical barrier to identify territory, and the wall in “Mending Wall” has been consciously constructed in violation of nature that “doesn’t love the wall.” To the narrator, the wall serves no useful purpose and is only an annoying reminder of his neighbor’s foolish platitudes and the inability of the neighbors to communicate except once a year at spring mending time. Before the narrator built a wall, he would want to know what he “was walling in or walling out,” but there is a more important question implied: If there were no wall, would he and his neighbor still be opposites? Because the narrator knows that the answer is “yes,” and because he is deliberately antagonistic (“Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder if I could put a notion in his head”), the presence of the wall is a purely academic argument for the narrator. The wall is unnatural—nature wants it down and topples it every winter—just as the wife in “West-Running Brook” thinks it is unnatural that the brook runs west instead of east like all the other country brooks. Fred, her husband, however, knows that there is a more important issue: not one of “opposites” or dualities but one of “contraries.” He says that “our life runs down in sending up the clock” and extends this comparison to the sun, which runs down in sending up the brook. The ultimate question is, What sends up the sun? What happens when the water flings backward on itself in a movement toward the source? There is something sending up the sun, something that does not love a wall. The persistence of “unnatural” barriers, like the wall, the brook, the apples, and the curtain in “Tree at My Window,” reminds the narrator that he cannot explain the existence of contraries any more than his neighbor can explain why good fences make good neighbors, but he does know that in contraries lie the secrets of living; that through the self-conscious process of witnessing contraries one is mot likely to discover one’s own life’s forces rather than any profound secrets of life.
Unlike the English Romantic poets and “nature poets” with whom he is frequently compared, Frost does not look to nature for an affirmation of life, for solace, or for a road to self-discovery. For Frost, people are alone in the world, unable to answer questions about God and death but having some control over their earthly destiny. For Frost, who is not a fatalist or a determinist, who believes things happen neither for good nor evil but simply occur, who does not fear death nor embrace promises of heaven, the only way is “to go by contraries,” making creative choices, accepting paradoxes, questioning walls and brooks.
Through wit and irony, people can remind themselves that much of their fallibility is self-induced; that they trick themselves and then despair when they think their manufactured illusions have become reality. They have not. Good fences do not necessarily make good neighbors; brooks do not wave at human beings in any annunciation; death does not come as a thrush, or a snowy night, or a spider.
“Fire and Ice”
In “Fire and Ice,” the entire doctrine of “opposites” and irony is at work, and this poem, perhaps most directly of all his work, illustrates Frost’s themes and techniques. Arranged as a single stanza of nine lines (in framed segments), the poem establishes the opposites of fire and ice, hot and cold, and love and hate, and centers on the middle (fifth) line of the poem. Fire is presented in the first four lines, ice in the last four. The center line asks, “But if it had to perish twice,” and that becomes the ironic key. Whether the world will be destroyed a second time makes no difference to Frost’s narrator; it is a moot question reserved for the gullible reader who interprets “After Apple-Picking” as a Christian manifesto. Frost is much more concerned with the power of hate, an opposite of love, which he says “will suffice,” but one must not be tricked by that simple explanation either, to conclude that humankind is beset by hate any more than it is pursued by death. It “would suffice,” if readers wanted it to, just as the woodchuck “would say” if he were asked, but the world does not have to “perish twice” except as one fears destruction, and readers do not have to ask the woodchuck, and one does not have to stoop to hate. “Some say the world will end in fire,” but not Frost.
During an age when the thrust of literature has been to question illusion and reality, and to lament the lonely plight and desperation of the isolated person in an overwhelming universe, Frost presents a more positive vision, rooted in the American search for the good life. Human beings may struggle to discover their tormented spirit, but they are also capable of creative choices and of accepting contraries and uncertainties. Frost delights in the mysteries of life without being burdened by debilitating responsibilities for them, and while human beings might not become the conquerors of the universe, neither are they suppressed by it, and in that Frost rejoices.
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